As presented in episode 8 of ‘The Last Dance’ Michael Jordan often used his superstar prerogative in front of the team, sometimes even being surprisingly disrespectful to his teammates.
On one such occasion, while talking about his Air Jordan 1s, he addressed the 1996 NBA Best Sixth Man of the Year, Croatian forward Toni Kukoc, who was sitting by his locker.
Jordan rhetorically asked Kukoc where he was when the shoe was released back in 1984.
Jordan: ‘Toni, you were not around; you were a baby when I brought this into the action.’
Kukoc: ‘What year?’
Jordan: ‘1984. How old were you? Twelve years old, were you not?’
Kukoc: ‘That’s when I started.’
Somebody else: ‘Toni was still in diapers.’
On this occasion, Jordan was totally off target — Kukoc was born on September 18th, 1968, he was already 16 in 1984. Nowhere near 12 years of age.
So, let’s press the fast forward button, in ‘The Last Dance’ style, and see where Michael Jordan and Toni Kukoc were in 1983-84, and the years which followed.
The winner of both Naismith and Wooden College player of the year had a season to remember, except for North Carolina’s early exit from the NCAA Tournament. Tar Heels were eventually eliminated by the Indiana University coached by U.S. Olympic basketball coach Bobby Knight.
For the second consecutive time in three UNC years, Jordan was voted to All-American 1st unit. He decided to go pro and was selected as the 3rd overall pick by the Chicago Bulls in the 1984 NBA draft.
Then, he went to the Great Western Forum in Los Angeles to test his game against the top international competition in the 1984 Olympics. There he completely overshadowed everyone, gained early worldwide popularity with his unique capability to maneuver with the ball in the air, and ultimately led the USA to the gold medal.
One year earlier, during the summer of ’83, while Jordan was preparing for the upcoming 83-84 season, a teenager by the name of Toni Kukoc was busy relaxing on the Bacvice beach on the Adriatic shore of his hometown Split.
His immense size and reflexes (playing soccer and ping pong at the time) were immediately spotted by the local coach Igor Karkovic, who was the first to invite Kukoc to the local team Jugoplastika Split practice, back in of September 1983.
What followed was off the charts — one of the most rapid progresses in the history of basketball.
Predominantly left-handed, Kukoc did have some early problems with learning how to drive to his right, but when he finally got the hang of going right, the sky was the limit.
In only a year, Kukoc went from being a local prospect unfamiliar with the game to become a member of the Yugoslavian youth national team. His stock rose from game to game, from tournament to tournament.
During the same period, the Bulls spectacular shooting guard Michael Jordan shined in his Air Jordan 1s and literally transformed the NBA game, on his way of becoming the NBA Rookie of the year in 1984-85.
Meanwhile, during the 1985 European cadet championship in Spain, Kukoc, who began playing basketball only two years earlier, teamed up with the future NBA star Vlade Divac and averaged 5.8 points per game. The team, of course, won the gold medal, thus setting up the gold standard for the years to come.
A couple of months before the European cadet championship tournament in Spain, on May 2nd, 1985, Utah University head coach Lynn Archibald, send a recruitment letter Kukoc’s Split home address. For Kukoc, still very fresh and unexperienced in international basketball, this was a tremendous honor, but he eventually turned down the offer and decided to stay home.
In November 1986, just as M.J. was starting his third campaign as a pro, then 18-year old Kukoc landed on the U.S. soil while on tour with the Yugoslavian national team.
Kukoc fully unleashed in the 1987 World Junior Championship in Bormio, Italy, where he scorched Team USA coached by Larry Brown with a legendary shooting display in which he scored 11 3s out of 12 attempts!
By the time the Bulls were able to pass the Pistons and win their first-ever NBA championship title in 1991, Kukoc had already led Jugoplastika Split to three consecutive European club championship titles (Euroleague titles).
Kukoc international dominance reached an unprecedented height in the summer of 1990, only seven years after he began playing basketball, when the Chicago Bulls 1990 draftee led the Yugoslavian national team to FIBA World Championship gold, while also being voted the MVP.
That hot summer, while the rest of the Bulls were recuperating from yet another postseason elimination by the Pistons, GM Jerry Krause went to work. He bravely drafted the left-handed 6’10” forward, who was considered the second coming of Larry Bird.
Kukoc wasn’t changing diapers at the time Jordan began his conquest of the NBA. He was already 16 and well on his path to basketball greatness.